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Spirituality and Social Transformation

Fr. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR



There are many people who have dedicated their lives in the struggle to change society. Some work for political change – for freedom, genuine democracy and the respect for human rights. Others fight for justice, equality, peace and development. There are also many who struggle to protect the environment especially with the continuing ecological destruction. The work for social transformation is by its nature carried out in the field of politics, economics and ecology. It requires militant action. Yet over the years, there has been an awareness, especially in the Philippines, that the struggle for social change needs to be grounded on and sustained by spirituality.


The question is: what is the role of spirituality in the process of social transformation?


Whenever I am confronted by this question my mind dwells on several images from the past. They are part of my memory which I will never forget.


The first image: Inside the political prison camp in 1973 more than a year after the declaration of Martial Law. There are seventy of us political prisoners gathered around a table on a Sunday. On the table is the bread and wine and Fr. Abao, a prisoner like us, presides over the mass.


The second image: In the Cathedral in Cebu September 21, 1975. Hundreds of  people, mostly coming from the urban poor that we have organized, participate in the liturgy commemorating the death of democracy. It is an act of protest against martial law. There are intelligence agents taking pictures but we just ignore them.  


The third image: In a squatters area in Davao in 1978. We have set up a barricade waiting for the demolition team that threatens to destroy the homes of the people. Inside the barricade we read the bible and pray together.


The fourth image: January 1986 on top of the mountain in Busay. I spend two weeks alone on this mountain – a habit that I started after my priestly ordination. I take a break from my mission work in the barrios and spend time in silence, prayer and reflection. At this particular time, my mother has just been killed by military men. I reflect about what I will do with my life. Everything seems hopeless. I ask myself: Is it now the time to leave the priesthood and head for the hills?  Where is God?”


The fifth image: February 1986. I am in a remote barrio in Arakan Valley, Cotabato. My ears are glued to the radio listening to the account of what is happening in EDSA, as millions of people gather in front of  the military camps, setting up barricades, facing the tanks, bringing their statues and rosaries, praying together, embracing the defecting soldiers. Finally, the dictator escapes to Hawaii. My eyes are filled with tears as I praise and thank God for the miracle.


The sixth image: December 1988, Malaybalay. There are over five hundred people coming from the barrios of San Fernando, Bukidnon, who have set up a barricade in the middle of the highway to stop the logging operations in the entire province. Many logging trucks are stranded. In front of us are military men. We spend time to pray and to celebrate the Eucharist. A few days later, the Secretary of the DENR will come and grant our demands.


The seventh image: Cotabato 2000.  Together with a Muslim Ustadz and other priests, we organize a Caravan for Peace across the war  zone in Central Mindanao. There are 64 cars and buses filled with Christians and Muslims. We set up a peace camp and in the evening we gather for an inter-faith prayer service. Christians and Muslims journeying together and praying for peace. The following day we are in front of the Estosan Hotel as the peace panel of the Government and the MILF resume their peace negotiation. We go back to Davao and as we pass the war zone, the armed clashes between the government and MILF stop.


The eight image: January 2001. I attend the KOMPIL leaders’ meeting in Ateneo de Manila. The meeting was called to finalize our strategy for the ouster of President Estrada. But first we start with a prayer service led by a Muslim leader and myself. I pray to the God who is present at EDSA and who continues to accompany his people in their struggle for social transformation. Less than a week later the EDSA II broke out and Estrada was ousted. On the day he was ousted, I was with a large group of priests and religious and lay people holding a prayer rally at the Rizal park.


What do these images tell us? It is obvious that in the Philippines, spirituality is an integral part of the process of social transformation. Those who are actively involved in the struggle for freedom, justice, peace and the environment are inspired and sustained not just by their ideological convictions but by their faith, by their spirituality. This is not surprising because Filipinos are deeply religious. We are able to integrate our faith with our struggle, prayer with action. Our militant action are often preceded, accompanied and followed by prayer and reflection.

We firmly believe in a God who is present in history and who accompanies us in our struggle. When we pray we are in touch with this divine presence and power. The religious symbols and rituals us reminds us of this.


When I speak of spirituality I am referring to the religious, transcendent and contemplative dimension of  life.  It is based on a world-view that affirms the existence of the sacred, the spiritual.  It is a way of relating with the divine. It is associated with prayer, contemplation, meditation, celebration, and liturgy.


Why is spirituality necessary for social transformation? What can it contribute to this process? Spirituality helps us see reality in a better way. We are able to look at the world and human existence from a wider, broader and deeper perspective. We are able to see what is good and what is evil in the situation. It enables us to see the truth of the situation – the suffering, the poverty, injustice, oppression, etc.


Spirituality can be the source of compassion. When we contemplate on the reality and the suffering of people, we develop a sense of compassion – that would lead us to action. This compassion prevents us from becoming heartless or ruthless and makes us follow the path of non-violence.


Spirituality can be the source of energy, vitality and dynamism for people who are engaged in social transformation. When people are in constant contact with the center of their being – with the transcendent – they are energized. Prayer, contemplation and celebration can help recharge those who are weary and prevent the phenomenon of burn out. It provides rest and stillness in the midst of  so much activity. It is the source of empowerment.


Spirituality can be the source of dreams and visions. It provides a vision of an alternative future – a future that is better than the present.


Spirituality can be the source of hope. The struggle for social transformation is hard and long. We can encounter a lot of setbacks and temporary defeat. We sometimes doubt if we will ever succeed. Yet the awareness of the presence of the divine in our midst and the recognition that this is the source of our empowerment, can make us go on knowing that in the end we will prevail, that we shall overcome.


There is a Chinese symbol which I believe can describe the role of spirituality in the process of social transformation. It  is the Yin-Yang.



The Yin represents Spirituality – the transcendent, contemplative dimension of life.  Yang is associated with action for social transformation. What is important is to achieve balance and integration of both. There is a time for action and a time for prayer, reflection and contemplation. Contemplation and celebration can take place before, during and after action. If one of these is neglected, an imbalance can result. If there is too much Yang (action) and too little Yin (contemplation), we can easily burn out and lose our way and we become prone to discouragement. If there is too much Yin (contemplation) and too little Yang (action), emptiness and boredom can set in or we become too self-centered.

As people who are engaged in social transformation, it is necessary to have our own spirituality. This means learning how to be still, how to meditate, how to pray and to contemplate in the midst of our busy activities. It means taking time off to reflect and to  celebrate. This can sustain us in our struggle to change our society and bring about freedom, justice, peace, development and liberation.